With the end of school around the corner, the options for summer camp have gotten endlessly niche: there's rock-star camp, circus-arts camp, Hollywood-stunt camp. But in what may be a backlash to the glitz of it all, the hippest new kid on the block is the lowly farm camp, with tilling the earth now seen as a wholesome and character-building respite from video games and texting. The American Camp Association (ACA) has surveyed its members to report that 83% of day and resident camps have added gardening activities in the past five years, and 19% have launched farming and ranching programs, which include raising animals. "People think kids intuitively wouldn't be interested," says CEO Peg Smith. "But we're seeing the pendulum swing back."
Outside Seattle, Shoofly Farm is already sold out, with 600 kids signed up for 10 sessions chock-full of "care and fun with farm animals" and "preparation of their own snacks and outdoor cooking" (think hand-cranked ice cream and eggs sizzled in cast-iron pans over the fire) in other words, what earlier generations considered work. Across the country, in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture offers a similar camp that includes morning chores as a significant chunk of the program.
At Stone Barns, kids are put to use collecting eggs, feeding pigs, filling water troughs and harvesting green beans that are incorporated into a camp dish or sold at an on-site market. They might make felt soap, using colorful wool from the farm's sheep to create an artsy washcloth that wraps around a bar of soap and shrinks along with it; or perform a skit about pollination, with campers playing the role of various and sundry bees. "We don't come up with a cute activity just because it seems like a good idea," says Judy Fink, Stone Barns' education programs director. "Everything is focused on what's happening at the farm." So in early July, campers harvest garlic; in August, they pick tomatoes. "Many of these kids don't get dirty, so getting dirty is really cool," Fink adds.
Becoming one with the land isn't cheap: parents plunk down $460 a week at Shoofly Farm and $400 at Stone Barns more than double some other day camps. But it's old-fashioned fun that stands in stark contrast to the virtual world; instead of playing Farmville, the popular Facebook game, they live it, grooming horses and mucking out stables and popping popcorn in coffee cans over a fire when the munchies strike.
"It's like an antidote to technology," says Jill Haase, who owns Shoofly in Sammamish, Wash., about half an hour from Seattle. "Kids are clamoring to be free. They relax. You can see their minds slow down."
Two years ago, Chris Butler packed her daughter, now 11, and last year her son, now 13, off to Shoofly in an attempt to pry them from their beloved Xbox. "They came home big-eyed," says Butler, from Fall City, Wash. "There's bunnies and chicks and goats, and they're muddy and making ice cream and tie-dye shirts."
Of course, no one's naive enough to think that a week swapping out chicken-coop bedding is going to turn kids away from tech. Notes Mara Flanagan, Stone Barns' marketing manager: "For the most part, we don't get cell-phone reception here, so it kind of helps."